Self-Empathy | How to Hold Space for Yourself

Self-empathy is a powerful technique designed to dissolve the shame around self-judgement and judgement of others, around our rage directed outwards and anger turned inwards, and around all our ‘undesirable’ thoughts and feelings.

“By beginning to look so clearly and so honestly at ourselves – our emotions, at our thoughts, at who we really are – we begin to dissolve the walls that separate us from others.” ~ Pema  Chödrön


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Through our self-‘shoulding’, shame and blame cycles we relentlessly lacerate our spirit, again and again and again, and our souls can feel suffocated under the weight of our own expectations.
Many of us were taught to drown but told to swim. We’ve been taught that anger, frustration, sadness, irritation, resentment are ‘bad’, that any emotional disturbance is equal to us being disturbed. ‘Bad’ emotions make us bad, or defective – intrinsically wrong in some way – and so with every experience of these emotions, a fresh layer of shame settles heavily on our hearts. 
Instead of turning way from our emotional experience, self-empathy encourages us to turn towards it, inviting in gentleness, clarity and compassion. By meeting ourselves where we’re at, instead of trying to escape or suppress our experience, we create a space to breathe, a space to be, a space for transformation. We alchemise the relationship with ourselves.
Non-violent communication

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A practise of self-empathy can create movement where there was stagnancy, curiosity where there was criticism, and hope where there was hopelessness.
Self-empathy can be practised in many different capacities but this example looks at inter-personal conflict. If we’re feeling angry, resentful or hurt about an interaction or situation, using this internal technique to process our emotional experience can introduce tenderness to our tension. 
The process can be done meditatively or by journaling. It can be done alone, or with an empathy buddy.


NVC self-empathy

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Place your hand on your forehead and start to name all your stories about the other person – all your judgements, beliefs, interpretations about what they said or did. Unleash your ‘shoulds’ without trying to suppress them or block them. Allow yourself all the thoughts and judgements you might usually ‘should’ yourself into silence over. 
For example:
  • They are so… (judgement). 
  • They always/ never… (generalisation)
NOTE – this is an internal process. It is not suggested you communicate your thoughts/ judgements/ blame about the other person to them directly. 



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With your hand still on your forehead, name all the stories you’re telling yourself about you. All your judgements, beliefs and interpretations about how you ‘should’ be behaving, acting, feeling. Allow these self-imposed expectations to flow freely without trying to block them. 
For example:
  • What’s wrong with me? 
  • Why does this always happen to me?
  • I should have done or said something differently.


Steps 1 and 2 allow movement from repression to expression. If we don’t consciously make space for these stories, they may form an unconscious narrative which narrows our soul. The more we smother our stories, shoulding and shaming ourselves out of divulging the dialogue, the more our stories silently constrict us.


NVC feelings and needs

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3.1 – Feelings


Staying with yourself, place your hands over your heart and start to connect with your feelings. What is happening in your body? Are you experiencing any tensions, tightness or constriction?


Notice the somatic sensations beneath the stories. Can you start to guess your feelings? Are you feeling agitated, angry, upset? Hopeless, overwhelmed, confused? Disheartened, disappointed, distressed?


By naming our emotions we start to diffuse their charge and lessen the intensity of their grip.


Psychologist Dan Siegel calls this practise ‘name it to tame it’. Translating our feelings into words helps us to witness the wisdom of our emotional rainbow. We start to see our feelings rather than be our feelings.


If we don’t name it to tame it, we may be denying or avoiding our feelings, which doesn’t actually make them go away. Unarticulated or suppressed feelings may then transmute into silent screams within our souls, seeking expression some other way.


NOTE – Most of us have been conditioned to erroneously identify our thoughts as our feelings. Most people do it. It’s a deeply ingrained habit. And until I started learning about Non-Violent Communication (NVC) I did it all the time too. It’s a habit that’s hard to break!

NVC feelings

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Common pitfalls when naming feelings…

Feelings are not thoughts.
Feelings are not opinions.
Feelings are not judgements.
Marshall Rosenberg explains that feelings are not feelings if ‘I feel’ is followed by:

• that, like, as, if – eg. I feel that you should know better. I feel like a failure.

• pronouns – I, you, he, she, they, them, it – eg. I feel you shouldn’t have done that. I feel he behaved badly.

• names or nouns referring to people – eg. I feel Tom has been inappropriate. I feel my coach isn’t listening to me.


Feelings are also not interpretations. Words like bullied, ignored, misunderstood, abandoned, manipulated, unappreciated, invisible are ‘technically’ not feelings. They denote an interpretation of the actions of another person. 


• If I’m ‘feeling bullied’ I may actually be feeling upset, terrified, lonely.

• If I’m ‘feeling abandoned’ I may actually be feeling hurt, lonely and scared.

Name it to tame it

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3.2 Needs


Slowly move your hands down to your belly and start to name the needs beneath your thoughts and feelings. 


For example:


• If I’m feeling angry, I might be needing reciprocity, consideration and to be heard.

• If I’m feeling disappointed, I might be needing nurturance, compassion and to matter.

“Our needs and our values are our life force – the river that flows through our spirit and our life, giving life and light to our being.” ~  Robert Gonzales

Say out loud to yourself each need word that resonates with you, pausing between each word, breathing into the resonance and what it feels like in your body.


eg. ‘To matter’ then breathe into it, sensing into what ‘to matter’ feels like in your body.


It’s very normal at this point for our minds to interject and start pulling our attention back into thought. If new thoughts and new judgements start to pop in, gently tend to them and return to Step 1 or 2.


This is rarely a neatly packaged, linear process. Our minds may bounce around, scattered and unfocused, but know that that’s ‘normal’. That’s our humanity.

NVC needs

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When you come back to your needs, with your hands on your belly, see if you can be with that felt sensation.


When we connect deeply with our needs we may experience a tangible shift in energy.


We may feel a dissipation of tension, and a lightness and spaciousness bloom from within. We may experience a relief from heaviness and a sense of peace and ease.


Keep going until you experience a shift.

“It is a radical shift to embrace any reactivity we experience and not make an enemy of it. Rather than saying ‘I must get over this, get rid of this’ or ‘I must heal this’, we go toward our reactivity and see it as our life force expressing in us, saying, ‘See me, allow me’. Our liberation, our freedom is in attending to our greatest fears with an allowing presence. The action of turning toward that which we perceive as the block in our lives is the act of self-compassion.” ~ Robert Gonzales


NVC needs and feelings

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After holding space for yourself with deep empathy and experiencing a shift in your energy, take some time to extend the same level of empathy for the other person.
Skipping straight to this step before completing steps 1-3, whilst perhaps seeming like the most compassionate option, is effectively spiritual bypassing.

“The fiery intensity at the heart of anger asks neither for smothering nor mere discharge, but for a mindful embrace that does not require any dilution of passion, any lowering of the heat, nor any muting of the essential voice in the flames.” ~ Robert Augustus

We need to meet our feelings in order to transform them. By ostracising, disowning or bypassing our feelings, they will remain undigested and unintegrated and we will stay stuck.

Self-empathy practise

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Once we have processed our genuine response to a person or situation we can then move into humanising the other and offering them the same empathic response we offered ourselves.


We start to guess their feelings and needs as well, behind their behaviour and their words.


Judgements and blaming may start to pop again, in which case we loop back to steps 1 and 2, remembering this is rarely a linear process.


For example:


• They may be feeling overwhelmed and exasperated because they’re needing support and recognition.

•They may be feeling frustrated and upset because they’re needing to be heard and appreciated.


The possibilities are endless and our guesses are just guesses. But by extending the empathic lens to the other person, as well as ourselves, we invite a free-flowing compassion that runs both ways.

“Empathy allows us to re-perceive our world in a new way and move forward. Every message, regardless of form or content, is an expression of a need. When we fear punishment, we focus on consequences, not on our own values. Self-judgments, like all judgments, are tragic expressions of unmet needs.” ~ Marshall Rosenberg


Olivia is passionate about all things healing. Having spent the last 12 years on a personal recovery journey from substance abuse and self-harming, she has a uniquely gentle and compassionate insight into this world.


She believes that connection with others and connection with ourselves is at the root of all healing and uses different modalities to explore this essential truth – 1:1 and group Breathwork, women’s healing circles, creative arts.

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